Thomas McCarthy Fennell ( 1841 - 1914)

Fenian, 1867 Uprising Veteran, "Felon of our Land" & City of Elmira Official

Thomas McCarthy Fennell was born in Oughterard in the Parish of Kilballyowen, Co. Clare, Ireland on December 22, 1841. Little is known of his early childhood other than his family owned or worked a farm and that they managed to survive the Great Hunger of 1845 through 1851. The family was bi-lingual as were most other families in that area at that time.

Fennell had at least one sibling, a brother named Mathais, whose great grandson, Philip Fennell together with Marie King edited and published a book titled; Voyage of the Hougoumont and Life at Fremantle --- The Story of an Irish Rebel Thomas McCarthy FennellThe book is based on Fennell's own manuscript written circa 1900.

The Parish of Killballyowen where Thomas was born is located in the scenic Loop Head Peninsula in West Clare.  Kilbaha, the scene of the  Fenian Rising of 1867 in Co Clare, a life altering event in Fennell's life, is also located in the Parish of Kilballyowen.

Apart from surviving the Great Hunger and the love and support of his family the only other positive aspect of his early life was that the National School System, established in 1831, was open to catholic children.

 Prior to the enactment of the Roman Catholic Relief Act in 1829, Catholics were subjected to the Penal Laws that amongst other repressive measures prohibited the education of Catholic children.  By the time Fennell was of school age the system was well established and local schools were within reach of most children. Fennell was a bright and eager student  who took advantage of the new found  freedom to learn and acquire as much knowledge as possible. After finishing his formal education at the age of fourteen or so he continued to study and master the art of writing as he demonstrated, later in life,  in describing  his treatment as a prisoner of the British usurper. 

The Roman Catholic Relief Act was enacted by the British parliament, not to right a wrong, but rather, to forestall a Catholic insurrection.

To place the time of Fennell's birth in historic perspective the prevailing state of Irish affairs was dictated by the British governments and its agents in Ireland. In that respect little had changed in hundreds of years. 

The population of Ireland was estimated to be approaching 8.5 million; a 50% increase in 60 years.  The population of Co Clare was approximately 280,000. Although the census records of 1841 was destroyed during the bombardment of the Four Courts in Dublin during the Civil War in 1922 sufficient documentation exists to arrive at the 8.5 million estimate. 

In the sphere of constitutional politics, the Repeal Association started by Daniel O'Connell in 1840 to repeal the Act of Union of 1801 between Great Britain and Ireland ended in total failure in 1846.  The Young Ireland movement , a more militant movement took its place. The  avoidable "Great Hunger" of 1845 to 1851 coupled with wholesale evictions of peasant farmers resulted in millions of deaths and the forced exodus of millions to America and elsewhere. The Young Ireland Rising of 1848 was in part a reaction to the ambivalence of the British government to the devastation caused by the "Great Hunger".

Coming of age during these tumultuous and tragic times left Fennell with the realization that British rule in Ireland was the root cause of Ireland's tragic history and that Ireland would fare better as an independent and sovereign nation. He also realized that Irish independence would never be achieved through constitutional means as demonstrated by the failure of the O'Connell's Repeal Association to achieve a modicum of home rule for Ireland and that force was the only language the British ruling elite understood. He was not alone in that belief as another wave of anti-British sentiment was building  in Ireland this time from within the masses of the poor and disfranchised native Irish.  The movement that harnessed that sentiment and spanned the Atlantic was collectively referred to as the Fenian movement.

In March of 1858 James Stephens and other leaders of the failed Young Ireland Rising of 1848 founded  the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) a secret oath-bound fraternal organization dedicated to the establishment of an independent democratic Irish Republic. Senior members of the organization traveled throughout Ireland, England and the United States recruiting volunteers and organizing support for the cause. The Irish People,  a newspaper devoted to the cause was founded in Dublin in 1863. In the United States a sister organization, The Fenian Brotherhood ,was founded by Michael Doheny and John O'Mahony both of whom were Young Irelanders.

In 1863 Fennell was one of the first Clare men to join the IRB. He was responsible for recruiting, organizing and training local volunteers.  By 1865  IRB agents had succeeded in recruiting tens of thousands of volunteers including thousands of Irishmen serving in the British army. In 1865 they set about preparing for a nationwide Rising. Unfortunately, as always, there were other cowardly Irishmen willing to betray their countrymen for the so-called King's shilling. Pierce Nagle a employee in the Irish People office was such a scoundrel who providing the British with the names of the IRB leaders and their plans for the Rising. In June of 1865, based on Nagle's information,   most of leaders were arrested, charged with high treason and sentenced to penal servitude for life.  Those who managed to escape were forced to leave the country to avoid capture.

The decimation of the leadership ended any chance of staging an effective and coordinated Rising. Nonetheless, local leaders were reluctant to give up and still hoped to strike at an opportune time. In 1867 another Rising was planned this time with help from members of the Fenian Brotherhood in the United States, many of whom were veterans of the Civil War. Once again the British were informed of these plans, this time, by John Joseph Croydon a Fenian Circle leader from Liverpool .

In the early days of March in 1867 an unsuccessful attempt was made to stage a nationwide Rising. As part of that effort a small raiding party of IRB volunteers that included Fennell  raided the Kilbaha Coastguard Station to seize arms for the Rising.  During the raid Fennell was shot in the hip. A members of the coastguard station was stabbed. After the raiding party left the coastguard garrison retreated to Kilcredane Fort on Scattery Island in the Shannon estuary. After withdrawing from the coastguard station the wounded Fennell was brought  to the home of a Patrick Keane where he received medical treatment and where three days later was captured by agents of the British crown.

On  July 16th of 1867 Fennell was indicted in Ennis in Co. Clare under the Treason Felony Act with "having on the 1st of January, 1867, compassed, with others, to depose her Majesty the Queen, and levy war against her, at Kilbaha". The trial was presiding over by the notorious Judge Keogh who had advised the jury beforehand that the charges would be “satisfactorily proved” against the defendant. Needless to say the defendant, Fennell, was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years hard labor

After the trial Fennell was moved Mountjoy prison in Dublin before been transferred to Portland prison in England.  Three months later on October 12, 1867 he was placed aboard the The Hougoumont and after a grueling voyage of three months arrived at the Fremantle penal colony in Western Australia on January 9,1868. The Hougoumont, which had 62 Fenian prisoners on board,  was the last convict ship to sail to Western Australia.

In response to U.S. government pressure to free the American Fenians including scores of Civil War veterans amongst them several high ranking officers the British government relented and released some of the Fenians in 1869.  In 1871 Fennell was released wit the remaining Fenians.  The only Fenians not released were the so-called  "Military Fenians"; Irishmen who had taken the Fenian oath while serving in the British army. They were considered by the British as common criminals never to be released.

After Fennell's  release in March of 1871 he made his way to New Zealand where he was arrested on arrival as the colonial government banned "ex-convicts' from entering. After convincing the authorities that he no desire to live in New Zealand  he was released and allowed to leave.  From there he went to New South Wales where the local Irish raised funds for his passage to America.

He arrived in California, aboard the City of Melbourne, in the latter half on 1871.  In 1872 he left California and made his way to Connecticut.  While living in Connecticut he met with John Devoy to discuss ideas on how to rescue the "Military Fenians" left behind in Fremantle. Fennell's idea was implemented and six prisoners and their rescuers made good their escape in the Catalpa on April 17, 1876. Fennell disavowed the original idea as his insisting that the original idea was broached to him by two individuals in Australia whom he refused to name. 

After his marriage to Margaret Collins in 1874 he relocated City of Elmira in upstate New York where he resided for the rest of his life.

After settling in the city Fennell became the proprietor of the Commercial Hotel where he lived with his family. In addition to his primary occupation as hotel proprietor he also served as the local agent for the Cunard Line, the first Irish Catholic school board member, a city Park Commissioner and the city's first Superintendent of Public Works. He also wrote articles for local newspapers.

He  kept in touch with his Fenian comrades from the past and supported various Irish causes including fundraising for the rescued Military Fenians and for the design and installation of the Manchester Martyrs Monument in Kilrush Co. Clare.  He also lent financial support to John Devoy's newspaper, The Irish Nation, to keep it afloat during a period of financial difficulty in 1884.

Thomas McCarthy Fennell died on February 23, 1914 after a brief illness at his home surrounded by his wife and three children, Thomas Francis, Matthias Franklin and Mary.

Contributed by;  Tomás Ó Coısdealha

Special thanks to Hibernians Geordy Austin and Tom Parker who took the time to travel from Syracuse to Elmira NY to locate and take a photo of Thomas McCarthy Fennell's grave. It is gratifying that individuals such as Geordy and Tom are willing to give of their time and energy to ensure that our Fenian dead are not forgotten and that their sacrifices for freedom and liberty on both sides of the Atlantic are recorded for posterity.